Study Guide

Power Science

By Adrienne Rich


Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate (1-5)

The poem begins with a name-check of some good ol' earth science—hello, freshman year of high school, we've missed you. But then the poem transitions to thinking about fake, or quack science, the kind of "science" of tonics and elixirs that are supposed to solve all of your problems with just a little sip (Felix Felicis-style). The type of science that's totally bogus, and, you know, not science at all.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness (6-7)

Here's our intro to Madame Curie. It starts right off with her death. Notice there's no deep discussion of her scientific research, no mention of her Nobel prizes. Rich just gets right to the radiation poisoning. There's a palpable absence in the poem of the actual science; instead, we just hear about how science has hurt Curie.

her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or pencil (8-13)

The word "bombarded" makes us feel like Curie had no chance of fighting the painful outcomes of her research. The radium, which has given Curie cataracts and pus-filled fingers, has totally demolished her body. Again, we only see suffering at the hands of science in "Power"—there's no mention here of all the good that Curie's discoveries did. The poem is definitely giving us a limited experience of Curie's scientific work.

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power (14-18)

The repetition of the phrase "denying / her wounds" just hits us in the gut. "Oh, Marie!" we want to cry out, "be honest with yourself and with the world." But maybe Marie Curie knew more than we did. (Actually, we're pretty sure of this.) Maybe Curie knew that her wounds and eventual death were worth the price of her success—maybe she knew that she would live on through her scientific discoveries.